Pharma Strategy Blog

Commentary on Pharma & Biotech Oncology / Hematology New Product Development

This morning I was idly browsing three completely different blogs, all of which mentioned social media in some way; Jeremy Dent's digital media company blog Juice, Steve Woodruff's Impactiviti blog and another from Pharma Executive. Taken as a group, I realised that things have changed a lot in the last few years in terms of digital media and PR, although few are really exploiting the arena.  Things are still evolving in the Pharma industry as a few players have only just started to experiment with the cool social media tools that are out there.  There will be a lot of interesting battles with internal medical-legal-regulatory review teams to come though. 

Back in 2000, when I was on the other side in big Pharma I can still remember the heated debates we went through prior to the Gleevec launch.  They make me smile now, it was quite benign stuff compared to what we could actually do these days. 

Imagine you have a new product in development for a particular cancer.  You want to educate doctors, patients, health care professionals, the media, analysts etc about the disease and how your drug works, for example.  In those days, iv chemotherapy was the rage and there was a certain scepticism that went with trying to develop a pill (a pill?!) for cancer that targeted the leukemia cells and left the normal cells mostly alone.  No mention of the product name other than its development code, STI571.  Sounds innocuous enough? 

The regulatory and legal people made the usual requisite changes from British to American vernacular, nit picked about adding Philadelphia-positive with the CML everywhere etc. Clarified and toned down a few descriptions, which made them longer (not for Twitter, that's for sure).  Fair enough, all acceptable suggestions and easy to execute.  But the poor regulatory lady was slowing turning puce and finally could stand it no longer and snapped, accusing me of making claims, of promoting the agent off label etc etc.  Finally, when she ran out of steam, I waited and politely pointed out that no off-label claims could be made as the drug wasn't available commercially and no generic name was even mentioned.  And so it went on.  Eventually, common sense prevailed and the scientific brochures got printed and the molecular biology stuff on the website went up along with similar information on other compounds in development.  There's always safety in numbers, we reasoned.

Now, fast forward 9 years. 

Today, that world would be very different.  Instead of a static 2D web page with bland, anodyne medical and scientific information, suppose we look at several new tools that are available?  A medical information specialist could bookmark key research and scientific papers pertaining to the disease and peer-reviewed publications in or Google Reader, example.  The RSS feed could then be shared on the products webpage and provide a useful source of technical information that would be in the readers interest should they need educational information.  A YouTube video could be done showing the novel mechanism of action etc.

What would happen if an enlightened medical, new product or marketing team took the same RSS links and fed them into Twitterfeed and hence to a Twitter or Friendfeed account and aggregated numerous sources of interesting data?  Would that be education or promotion?  Or suppose there was also a blog with lovely widgets and chicklets saying Add Me to your RSS Reader or Email Me when a new post goes up or Share This with others via StumbleUpon, Digg, Mixx, Facebook etc.

But hang on a minute…

Would that be all covered under DTC or PhRMA guidelines?  That tends to only cover television and newpaper ads, for example.  If it's a drug in development, FDAMA guidelines wouldn't apply.  How would DDMAC view things? 

Suddenly, you're back in that tricky grey area I found myself in with no safety net and no rules to guide anyone either.  The Pharma industry is one of the most highly regulated industries and rightly so where people's health is concerned.  But FDA, OIG and DDMAC also need to change with the times and provide better, clearer and more comprehensive guidelines we can all work with.

Instead, I can see clash between the review team having kittens and an aggressive, bold marketer or commercialisation person with a pipe dream to provide cutting edge information that differentiates them from the competition, just as I was trying to do by pushing the window while staying within the outer boundaries. Paralysis and intense debate ensue.  Same situation, same goals, same medium, but very different (and better) tools.

The irresistible force and the immovable object collide.  Again. 

Plus ça chânge, plus de la même chose.

What's your view on social media and pharma?

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7 Responses to “Social media and Pharma”

  1. Brad at Pharma

    And you’ve smacked up against the conversations we’re all having in Big Pharma. I’m hearing, anecdotally, that all these conversations are being repeated. I’m hearing that JnJ is having to drag Legal every step of the way. I’m hearing of other companies that are in the space without having the “social” part of social media.
    I’m hearing of legal departments who are willing to work with Big Pharma, too. Legal groups who are stepping up and saying, “Look, we want you to do everything… we just want you to be able to do it without getting smacked down…”
    We’re getting there.
    There are some sensible regulations that protect patients from marketing staff running amok… after all, we are talking about people’s healthcare here… So, these are reasonable, intentionally disruptive regulations. Healthcare as free market would be a different animal… an animal I (personal opinion, not affiliated with my paycheck signers) wouldn’t want to see let loose.
    This being said, there are responsible ways that Pharma can participate. We should make data available under CC licensing, inclusive of Fair Balance and Safety information, and set it free… all information strives to be free. We should make some of our physician specialists available for discussions… within safety, legal, and regulatory guidelines… with patient groups. Actual question & answer not just “look at my travelling puppet show” presentations… which have their place… We should be facilitating spaces for patients, caregivers, and patient advocates to meet, discuss, and share successes around their treatments…
    There is a reasonable amount of concern on the part of Big Pharma… as much as I want the ship to turn quicker… there are legal issues, class action suits, generic discussion… all kinds of stuff.
    I’m not talking out of school here. I’m putting together what I’m seeing in the general conversational area. There should be no surprise that people want these things. It’s what I read in blogs. It’s some of what I say in my own PodCast (not affiliated in any way, shape, or form with my paycheck signers), it’s what I hear when I talk face to face with real human beings…
    I want to see us move at lightning speed. I want to see us be able to do all these things. And call me a shill, or challenge me that I’ve drunk the Flavour-Aid, or call me out for selling out to “the man”, but frak it… Big Pharma can do this… we can… I honestly believe we can.
    And we should.

  2. Sally Church

    Brad, very well said, I hear your passion and enthusiasm for getting things done. If there are more Brads in the Pharma industry, the world will be a much better place.
    Actually, to be fair the review teams at Novartis were pretty good although I polarised one small event for the sake of generating discussion and open debate. Most of the time they were part of the extended team. They listened. They helped. They advised. Sometimes they would say something along the lines of ‘ah, I see what you’re trying to accomplish but here are the risks that go with that. How about…. ‘ and offer a different solution. That approach benefits all of us when we seek first to understand and then be understood.
    It would be really interesting to here what other companies are doing, to share experiences and best practices. Risks taken as a group are a risks shared.
    I love your ideas about physician interviews, better fair balance information etc. They are all excellent points we should all be thinking about.
    Can we do it? Yes, we can!

  3. Sally Church

    Good question, Jem.
    The straightforward answer is I don’t know.
    There are enough headaches working out the differences between the US and EU, let alone expect either to change with the times and adapt to the digital age with its different channels of distribution.
    Wonder what Bill makes of it all though?

  4. Andy Levitt - HealthTalker

    Hi Sally –
    Great blog post around this topic. Our business, HealthTalker, focuses exclusively on creating WOM and social media solutions for pharma, and we too believe that it can be done. It’s still early days for pharma + social media, but we’re making some nice headway as an industry.
    Much like TV commercials that encourage the consumer to ‘ask their doctor if drug X is right for them’, a conversation between 2 people can lead to the same call-to-action. What we like so much about social media in pharma is that the physician is the learned intermediary who can help prevent inappropriate use of Rx products. The prospective, newly-informed patient needs to go see their physician to get the product they’ve now heard about, and only the physician can enable the prescription.
    No one is going to be able to monitor exactly what is said between two people in a conversation, and this is part of what gets pharma so nervous, and generally for good reason. I think we as an industry would be wise to get comfortable with the idea that conversations between consumers are happening, and that the rules/guidelines that govern their content must be different than what is demanded of TV, print, web, etc.
    Furthermore, we believe pharma companies can help shape and influence the content of the conversations people are having, and learn from what is discussed. To that end, however, it is critically important that consumers are educated about a product and/or a condition, are are provided tools that they can share with people in their own social network who care about that same condition.
    What makes it all so powerful is that those people trust the person sharing the message, discussing their personal experience, helping raise awareness of conditions and treatment options, and encouraging the role of a physician. Everyone wins in the end.

  5. Sally Church

    Thanks for your comment, Andy.
    It’s interesting that your website is traditional though with contact via email or phone; there is no obvious way to contact you through Social Media such as Twitter, LinkedIn etc 😉

  6. Keith Mantia

    Very interesting Sally, I think the things you brought up are very interesting, and while I don’t know anything about guidelines within Pharmaceuticals and marketing, I have done some extensive research on pharma social media marketing.
    With regard to websites like twitter, while they are very useful, I think there are a few things that might hold it back — 1. I’m not sure that many people would really jump to follow a pharmaceutical company on twitter, while the 140 word limit would also make it hard to put out simple tweets about pharmaceutical products. Furthermore, these conversations are much less likely to be found when people ‘Google’ the topics they are looking for (which is what people usually do.)
    Instead what a lot of companies are doing is creating their own Youtube pages (Johnson & Johnson) or supporting community based websites that support specific illnesses (High blood pressure, high cholesterol, etc.) What this is doing for companies is really just establishing a better face. The Pharmaceutical industry is one not highly trusted by consumers – with research saying around 50% of people doing online research for a medication will not go to the brand website because they believe the information is either biased or designed to just sell their medication. And while they are obviously trying to sell their product, the pharma industry is one that should be working to establish some kind of relationship with consumers, especially in these times when candid/un-censored conversations are happening EVERYWHERE online. One thing I found that is great is some companies are now creating communities within their branded websites, or sponsoring popular websites that everyone goes to (such as WebMD, RX list, or online communities) because they are open forums for both curious and educated consumers. In doing this they help to finance resources for consumers (doctors/pharmacists) and then get their product message delivered in a much softer, less abrasive manner. A high blood pressure medication for example might support ways to lower BP naturally though an online community/forum, and then say something along the lines of “if diet and exercise isn’t enough XXX is here to help you.” — making them sound much more consumer based and not sales based.
    Ultimately I think that Social Media is a highly untapped marketing resource for pharmaceuticals and I’m very interested to see how it will be used in the near future.

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